guest post by Richard Laermer
A PR person’s job is to try to look through both the news and the fodder and understand how an idea becomes newsy or water cooler talk in first place. It’s all about finding the right trend—being on top of everything.
And in the near future, as the media becomes not a print vehicle or a TV station or even a product held in our hands, but a series of people we depend upon for knowledge, data and worthy opinion, you are the one who is going to be making news and providing the details. You are going to be the big shot!
After all, a top-tier journalist you might have once contacted to “get the story out” is likely to be out of work soon. He or she is too expensive for the corporation to keep on.
So, with that unexpected reality, you will need to be the source. To thrive in this nascent era as a communicator, job number one is to become a student of the unvarnished media.
You must dig past the superficiality of nonstop babbling columnists who have nothing helpful to say—and ignore them without pause. You must understand the new “news” will be whatever drives clicks on a site—and those (sometimes sensational) elements don’t often match with the defining traits of was once investigative media - truth, service, objectivity, so on.
The MS media were once a bunch of places where people went for dependable knowledge from trained, trusted experts. Now we are the folks gathering information and it’s time that we, like the early-at-work doughnut guy, MAKE the content.
That means you will need to un-spin the news – most of which is found information that others regurgitate as new - and become The World’s Greatest Trend Spotter.
[image from MadAtoms, Politically Erect, the evolution of news]
You must stop being a passive consumer of media. You have to actively deconstruct it and constantly be in “analysis mode” of what you look for and all that you read or, dare I say, skim. You have to understand what fills the news hole in the future—become a reliable individual with as much knowledge as the person you once depended upon as a reporter who, as you can tell, isn’t there to delete your email anymore!
You are going to feed the beast yourself. Put differently, rather than just throw yourself at the media as you do now, you are going to become a trustworthy individual who actually researches and crafts story angles that bloggers, vloggers, tweeters, podcasters, radio folk, newsletter writers, and regular bigmouths will want to use in a heartbeat.
For that to happen, you will possess an arsenal of knowledge. If you are the source, that means start learning from your/your clients’ customers. You’ve heard it so many times that it may seem trite, but listening is essential to forecasting trends and it's something PR folks don't think is in their purview. Ou contraire.
- Ask your/their customers questions about your products and services—get the difficult answers.
- Ask what they're looking for next.
- Ask your customers what they think – just few questions, don’t overuse folks’ time - by organizing online or in-person focus groups and hear (then use) what people are thinking.
- Find out what media they're using and what they think of current events.
- Then use all that to filter the information you place for like-minded folks to find.
Get filled with a new sense of cultural awareness as you read a ton and ask and take in what people say—not half-assed thinking but actual considering what people are saying. Spend a few minutes away from your BlackBerry and meditate on the information someone just told you.
You will be the savvier when something suddenly hits big because you saw it coming. And in this new PR society you will be the one person in your circle who collects incoming trends instead of bobble-heads!
That said, to work with so-called news makers in the future—you’ll need to be, well, like a reporter. That means become a person who breathes current events of every stripe.
And most especially, learn to be the person who reads a story and actually sees why a certain company was featured (or not, for that matter). And yes, I get that is a tall order requiring you to become more informed across the board. It calls for you to stop consuming only media that interests you.
Stop reading the same old things. S-t—r—e—tch. Why is this good for you? Absorbing, studying and imprinting on lots of different subjects enable you to see the big picture. What’s “real” and truly newsworthy starts to seep into your pores.
This makes you so much more aware of what people are trying to cram down your throat as faux newsworthy. For example, I read Prison Life, and it gets me a lot of needful information, as does my poring over Call Center magazine (uncannily still churning as Gourmet hits the skids).
With media growing from a handful of places to everywhere you turn and with everyone a published reporter thanks to Mr. & Mrs. Web, you must careful about what’s pretense and what’s not—and digging into all media all the time is your cure to getting conned.
It’s refreshing when people can talk to each other with more than just a semblance of knowledge. If you work in PR, you need to be informed in a way that appears to be getting harder and harder.
Everything we turn to has become overly personalized and overtly customized.
Marketers flood our mailboxes, real and virtual, with all sorts of offers customized for us alone. Hundreds, okay thousands, of sites offer services to help us get info “quicker” like My Yahoo! or MyWashingtonPost or MyLaermer.com.
On a more profound level, the ease with which we can arrange to be spoon fed only that which we deem worthy is, however, a sudden danger. With this you become less informed than you ought to be, or would, if you had to seek out all this information yourself.
All this customization has led us down a wily path of surreal, distorted knowledge.
[image by scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory research library]
My elders tell me the folks who didn’t burn up in the 1929 Great Crash days were well‐informed because they read everything available to them (which wasn’t much)! They saw cultural indicators that told them to react—fast! In pre-breadline 2010, we’d do well to follow our forefathers’ advice and cull knowledge from broader sources.
There’s no better time to learn how to become an educated news sniffer-outer. Become the one who knows the difference between a fad and a real trend. And with that, seven ways to a the trend spotter emeritus.
To be one you have to search for indicators of what direction the targeted country/ industry/ group is headed; to do that appropriately you have to be able to recognize something no one else has noticed is bubbling up as a trend-to-be.
1. Faddy Trends
What’s the difference between a fad and a trend?
A fad is a flash in the pan—and it’s a reason why Madonna (a cottage industry herself) publicly dons Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue T-shirts. She scoffs at them: “You’ll be gone like Cyndi Lauper. Heh heh.”
A trend is what is about to hit. That is what to look for. And it’s what makes life exciting. When you’ve got one example, it’s “a noticeable situation.” When you’ve got two examples, it’s a fact. And when you’ve got three examples—it’s a trend.
In other words, a trend is something that is still just beginning to happen—the use of those tiny devices to check our e-mail; the tendency for movies to be built around consumer products like Ray-Bans or a particular class of Mercedes—but it is happening in a significant enough way that it portends widespread change.
The trends enjoyed by a few today will be experienced by many tomorrow and virtually all next week. And a good trend spotter knows how to separate the wheat from the chaff, how to distinguish today’s passing fancy or fading passion from tomorrow’s hot new item.
In lots of businesses—media, entertainment, PR, fashion, marketing, and all stock market related professions—knowing the latest trends is a prerequisite for success or even survival.
Unfortunately often the message is clear: you miss out on the trend, and you’re out on the street. It’s not just certain professions, though.
Even ordinary consumers are subject to the fear that they won’t know enough to get on with their lives. “Are you ready for the road of life?” once asked an odd Mazda advert. Car commercials used to sell you sex appeal and power—now they promise that you will indeed be equipped for some kind of road that apparently leads into an unknown and terrifying future.
I asked a friend of mine, a journalist who’s now looking for work, why he thought we were so fascinated by trends. “Simple,” he said. “The trends happen, and we find ourselves in the middle of them, and we want to identify what is happening.” People need a way to identify and understand trends because they want to make sense of what is happening in their lives. That’s trendy.
2. Note + Phone + Mail
Take notes on (and keep) scraps of paper so you can go back to the places in your travels you happen upon, whether you are in your own town or you happen to see something written on the wall somewhere. It’s so easy. Use the phone. That’s the real killer app.
When you read about a company, establishment, or organization that appeals to you, get on their mailing list—send them a tweet or take the time to fill out that stupid form--and make sure they know you are all over them!
Being involved in a company’s evolution is how you stay informed and is the best way to find out what’s “breaking” in areas you are interested in. You may receive more mail at Gmail but so what? Your friends send you garbage every second of the hour---you can ignore them and read more about orgs you find fascinating.
And of course the best part is you are now invited to parties and Betas and specials—before every other Joe does.
Then there’s the part of trend spotting that makes you feel good. When you give even a small parcel of cash to a group or society that sponsors a museum, a private home, or a monument, you are sent regular bits of knowledge relevant to that organization.
This is a handy excuse for feeling good about supporting a worthy cause and usually tax deductible. Oh, and let’s not forget about those incredible parties they throw! Charities, man. Art galleries throw the best parties. Good-looking people are paid to hang out there!
Use your notebook. Don’t have one? Buy a Composition book and a Pilot that writes upside down. Make a list of subjects then call places that house those topics to find out about them. (Or jot them down who you want to call on your PDA.)
Science proved that writing is the best way to remember things—even if you throw the paper out the act of jotting is a memory-saving device. Remember the line from Mad Men: “The best memory is not so firm as faded ink.”
You should get into the habit of collecting data on those things that even vaguely interest you, so you never again have to answer, how do I become better informed? You’ll be all over new topics as the quintessential know-it-all by then. I promise.
Oh and have you heard of this new invention called the United States Postal Service? You give 44 cents on a sticky object to some guy in a uniform via and he sends a letter or a parcel or a kiss-on-a-page to someone who opens it and gets to hold it in his or her hand. Guarantee the guy you write will respond.. After they stop being in shock knowing you didn’t just hit send.
3. Places That Still Sell Bound Copies of Anything
[image of bookstore]
Go out and find a place to just browse. There’s no money involved! You don’t even need dial-up to stand in a store. Be it Barnes & Noble or Borders or the last two indie bookstores---or a car wash that sells paperbacks round the corner.
You know, in Paris there are bookshops in every arrondissement. It’s a phenomenon. The put-upon Government still finds a way to support them; Parisians pay no payroll taxes on family members working as clerks. Thus a preponderance of stores that sell these gems called … books.
In America, we used to go to bookstores to congregate around words. It’s a nice feeling. If you do enough looking around you’re bound to find someone—er, something you like.
Each time I blog about bookstores I get flamed: People say “Give me a break. No one does that. It’s all online.” That’s not how you get these oncoming trends into your system. Take my advice: find a store—even Staples has a book section. Get off the sidewalk and into a mall and grab 10 distinct magazines and read them cover to cover. One of each, eh? If you’re only looking at your own vertical/specialty, you’re too limited.
Ask people at the store—bored but anxiously helpful clerks—what do they hear about? What are customers buying besides Mr. Grisham? (Do this exercise at a newsstand while they still exist. It’s fascinating what the store runner will tell you—a lot of folks buying yachting magazines cause they pine for a better life!)
When you do what I tell you, you’ll collect anecdotes you now have stories to tell. Remember—be a mirror. That’s a secret. A mirror is one who people look at, suck up information from, and hope to be as replete with information. Be the guy everyone wants to talk to, learns from, share knowledge with. That’s how REAL trends come to you.
The ancillary effect is you get better media coverage for those you represent—or yourself. If you share that gorgeous earned knowledge, and others hear about all that good stuff you’ve got in your brain, they inevitably share back.
Yep, you are a Twitter-habituate like me. Everybody sees what you share and uses those details because you were sweet enough to put it in 140 or less. You unleashed material that is new to your colleagues and pals—and that’s why people pay attention.
Guess What? You are a source. Key word: new. The new information has your spin on it, your opinion, and your way of seeing. Shared. No holds barred. (And you took the time to edit!) There are few real differentiators today. You’re one whom everyone can depend upon because you have a perspective and are willing to spin it for everyone in a transparent way.
PR people who talk about the fascinating stuff they hear—and we all know them—who share as vividly as possibly—are the ones who will succeed in I Am Source PR. Sharing is a huge part of our lives and is the dictionary meaning of that bullshit term “viral.” Nothing is big unless lots of us see it -- and use it.
Example: Your colleague is a newsletter writer on new retail tech and one day you happen to walk by an electronically-diverse window at Macy’s. Send a quick note to let her know it’s up, and explain why it works for her venue. Her story on the breaking-news-at-Macy’s is now quoted by everyone because she was first. That person will be so happy she’ll follow you to the ends of the tweeter world.
Now you’re thinking “Gee, Richard, what can I get from a book that I wouldn’t, say, secure from my constant scanning of Google News?” Good of you to ask. I never cared much about what Alan Greenspan thought. The former Fed head did, however, possess a scary understanding of trends in the economy by paying attention to what might on the surface seem absurd.
A few years back, a guy from Queens named Justin Martin wrote a book that appeared dull, Greenspan: The Man Behind Money, but I read it anyway. There, without much effort, I learned that Alan G would track something as seemingly insignificant as the production and sale of packing paper. You know, the brown paper used at the UPS Store for shipping.
The packing paper industry is certainly not interesting to follow in the least, and yet what Greenspan realized was that a rise in production of packing paper meant more people were shipping things. This meant people were spending more money on products that came in—all together now—packed boxes.
When people spent that kind of sick cash on packed boxes, consumers felt economically secure and the country was getting up on its hind legs.
4. This Web We’re Tangled In
How about a little history about the InterWeb we are all tethered to: Computer networks were started as a mechanism. The Net was begun for scientists to exchange information, a manner for communicating with one another through email and to research statistics.
In 1990, the many existing networks were linked together as the Internet. It was a big moment.
The Web is, as you may know, a system of regional hubs that loosely direct traffic and speed communications using whatever “tin cans” can reach the computer (e.g., broadband or some other magic).
Most Net communications will eventually be routed toward those lines. A person whose computer is attached to the Web can have access to whatever has been chucked up there. The Web works on a clients/server model where client software or the browser runs on a local computer. The server software runs on a Web host.
A pal of Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee talked to him in the early ‘90s and said the geek was upset because he meant the system for university professors, not the rest of us.
But people always take over from science for commercial use. And within a decade or so our wily Internet became a system of networks that makes it possible for computers to talk to each other—and find ways to sell us shit.
Television and phone systems have a network or infrastructure and the Internet does too! So as you browse and collect favorites, you are your own TV network! You’re a mini Jeff Zucker. (Well, he’s already tiny....)
Use it to go much further than just searching for the right shoes.
There are these terms – deep Web, hidden Web, invisible Web and deep Net – that describe a Web not visible to the public or not yet indexed by lovable search engines.
Some portions of the deep Web consist of dynamic pages accessible only via a form or submitted query. Web pages that are not linked to other pages are also part of the deep web. They are, in effect, invisible; regular ole search engine crawlers will not find them since they don’t have back links or inbound links.
The deep Web is the part of the Internet that is inaccessible to conventional search engines, and consequently, to most users.
According to researcher Marcus P. Zillman of DeepWebResearch.info, as of January 2006, the deep Web contained somewhere in the vicinity of 900 billion pages of information. In contrast, Google, the Daddy of engines, had indexed just 25 billion pages.
Some universities, government agencies and other orgs maintain databases not meant for general public access. There is, however, a way in. Find the places where the deep Web info is, and going into unmasked archives yourself. Sometimes you have to request access (that’s what “bill-backs” are for).
This term “deep Web” was coined by BrightPlanet, a search engine firm specializing in searching content beyond the norm.
In a white paper, The Deep Web: Surfacing Hidden Value, it noted how a deep Web was growing more quickly than surface Web and that quality of the content was significantly higher than the vast majority of surface Web content. Although some of the content is not open to the general public, BrightPlanet estimates that 95% of the deep Web can be accessed through specialized search.
That’s where you, oh Google expert, come in handy. Find ways to access what seems to be further in than the normal showoff surface Web matter.
5. Grassroots Trend “Asking”
But, first, you have to know who to go after!
One day I was thinking about writing an environmental trend post and I knew something had to be said about the changing weather patterns and unusual storms we have witnessed in the past decade. Who to talk to was the question.
I did a simple (not-so-deep) search and found an organization called the National Climatic Data Center just by chance rather quickly.
When I first called and described to the receptionist the book and what information I might be interested in she transferred me to one of the meteorologists at the center. After a couple minutes on the phone with me, he suggested I speak instead with David Easterling, who, he told me candidly, was far more knowledgeable about the subject than anyone he knew.
So, after another phone transfer, I left a message for Easterling, who was away on vacation. Eventually we spoke and soon, too, U.S. News and World Report ran “The Weather Turns Wild,” an article detailing the changes in weather anticipated for the future.
Trend spotting via experts does not get any better illustrated than the above. Experts particularly love to share what they’re into. Here are ways to get in good with them…
A) Pay attention to people you believe in. Get in touch and ask questions.
B) Ask really good (useful) questions. Have total belief in your sources and tell ‘em this.
C) Find visionaries who can teach you new ideas, and try to tell them one piece of intelligence they weren’t aware of. People with vision know they can take a new person’s idea to another level. So they are thankful to respond to your call/e-mail. It’s important to learn to recognize the difference between true visionaries and slick wannabes.
6. Trade Ya!
Movements start at the bottom and work their way up. Pay attention to the smaller stories sometimes. Seek out information on groups doing things outside of the norm. The people who are really passionate about what they are involved in are the ones making change.
These people are creating a niche and putting out very specific publications geared around that niche. Watch what they are doing and talking about; you’ll be ahead of the curve when the mainstream eventually does pick it up.
However, look at trade magazines, too if you want to know what is really going on in a certain industry. Sites are easily trackable—and everything is in an archive now.
Here’s a non-boring example of why trade is crucial: Nobody without real knowledge and an analytical head can tell what is happening inside the walls of movie studios –and if you do PR for anything Hollywood oriented you’d better know ins and outs of this shockingly evolving business.
Really knowing means not focusing on gossip and spec but being aware of moves within companies in that industry. You need to be able to recognize names, faces, histories, earnings, merges, partnerships, and all details of the business you are tracking. Better to read more Variety.com and less Nikki Finke!
7. Information, Please
As author of 2011: Trend Spotting for the Next Decade, I spent years finding forward-thinking news no one else knew before publication. I’m a reluctant futurist and do more of the explaining how to “be a prognosticator” yourself.
Anyway, I discovered you can find out anything if you know where to go and get it – and a lot of that happens off the couch. You got to use some extreme common sense and come upon new places to look. (Do I sound like your mother yet?).
Any true media junkie obsessively keeps up with the daily burst of information that is a part and parcel of not just what intrigues us, but what is crucial to the world at large.
Like Jefferson remarked sometime: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to choose the latter.”
Choose one day to read up—keep it simple. Read and/or compose Letters to the Editor like mad. Participate in blogs. Tweet up. Digg stories. Reddit! Be the active peruser. Not the guy who says “Oh wow. I didn’t read that.”
Staying awake and being the person who is always alert to a new topic is the key to being truly informed. By “new topic,” I mean the one that a customer might care about—but until this very second you did not.
At RLM PR (my firm, a fun place, come visit) we once got asked to help do branding and media for a pizza chain down on Wall Street, pre-Bernanke. They had succeeded in a few other cities but for some reason downtown they were a bunch of chain ghost stores.
I noticed they were in lobbies of financial institution buildings and that while the owners and managers read Pizza Today and a lot of inside baseball about better dough-making they knew nothing about bankers.
I introduced them to Bank Note, Bank Letter and American Banker magazines and pointed out the good of being “in them” as the new kid in town, and also of them reading these dull magazines (to them) so they could learn what was happening in a banker’s mind. They did; read and ran their banking-area-pizza-joints as the ultimate meeting spot for everyone upstairs.
Soon they were handing out Barron’s articles to their customers—telling them “did you see this story about your line of work—and have some extra cheese!”
They got very successful by not just caring about what they cared about.
Be open to the new… a truism.
So say you’re only into sports, Britney & Kevin & Jeff, the latest on Desperate Housewives 911, or the most recent Congressional hoo-hah, it in fact says you are limited and stuck. What about 99 percent of the other news?
You got to be pouring over things ferociously; linking to ideas that are question marks until you read them; tearing up newsletter snippets and downloading podcasts with an authoritative edge to them. That’s how you succeed. Period.
To be a real trend finder, make it a part-time job! Being totally informed is the only way to get ahead in I Am Source PR. Let me rephrase that. It’s the only way to keep yourself in the career you chose. Because mainly being interested in stuff is passé.
Today, it’s urgent to be INTERESTING since that would put you in a class by yourself—people tend to like you better because you are a hotbed of “hmm, cool facts” in an invisible world where people repeat the same one-liners every minute of every day.
You don’t want to live in Sameness. Echh. You want to be where everyone knows your name. That’s the world where you said something that is being repeated by others… because you are the source. All of a sudden you start getting those “others” to tell you the fantastic stuff they heard/read/eavesdropped upon that excites them, jazzes them, hits them harder than a double espresso on a freezing day.
It’s the place where a PR professional like you is someone to be reckoned with—someone unstoppable and always on the hunt for the next great event to participate in. And I think to myself what a wonderful world!